Why Movement Is Good for Hyperactive Kids

By Sherry Baker and Temma Ehrenfeld @SherryNewsViews
January 12, 2023
Why Movement Is Good for Hyperactive Kids

A growing body of research suggests that allowing your child with attention deficit disorder to move around may be beneficial. Here's what you should know.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common disorders of childhood, affecting six million American youngsters between the ages of 3 and 17, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The National Institutes of Mental Health notes that ADHD symptoms include difficulty paying attention and excessive movements, such as kids squirming around in their seats at school.

It’s easy to assume that fidgeting associated with hyperactivity is related to inattentiveness. A growing body of research, however, suggests that moving around might benefit kids with ADHD — and even increase their ability to focus in class.

Given a chance to exercise, they seem better able to think and draw upon their judgment and self-control. In fact, a meta-analysis of 15 studies concluded that exercise sessions helped ADHD kids and teens, with more intense exercise having a stronger effect.


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How much exercise is necessary?

To test that question, in a later study, researchers engaged 25 youngsters diagnosed with ADHD in 20 minutes of exercise that brought their heart rate as high as 80 percent of their maximum while they watched a cartoon video. Another group of 25 watched the same video while being seated.

In subsequent tests, the exercise group performed better than the seated group on a test of their alertness and had fewer errors on another test. The benefits of the exercise emerged both in children who were on medication and those who were not.

Michigan State University (MSU) and University of Vermont researchers found that youngsters who have ADHD or are at risk for the disorder benefit from physical activity before their school day starts, too.

Performing daily aerobic exercise in the morning boosted attentiveness in the classroom, according to their study. The children were less moody and more likely to get along with classmates, as well.

“Physical activity appears to be a promising intervention method for ADHD with well-known benefits to health overall,” said researcher Alan Smith, chair of MSU’s Department of Kinesiology. “This gives schools one more good reason to incorporate physical activity into the school day.”

Fidgeting may have benefits

The exercise interventions built upon earlier observations that the spontaneous fidgeting apparent in some children actually helped them perform during certain tests. A team at the University of California (UC) Davis MIND Institute studied a group of pre-teens and teenagers diagnosed with ADHD, comparing their performance on attention tests to a group of kids who didn’t have ADHD.  

To document how much the research volunteers moved and fidgeted, study participants wore devices on their ankles that measured physical activity while the youngsters completed a "flanker test," concentrating on one arrow on a screen while ignoring other arrows.

Each child taking the test was told to focus on the arrow in the middle of other arrows flanking the target and to decide in what direction the central arrow was pointing. In multiple tests, the arrows changed directions and, to score correctly, the child’s attention had to be focused on the one central arrow while ignoring the others.

The results show that youngsters with ADHD who were actively moving around — squirming in their seats — performed significantly better on the flanker tests than youngsters who sat still. In fact, the research subjects who moved the most intensely performed best of all and were more likely to note correctly the middle arrow’s direction.

"It turns out that physical movement during cognitive tasks may be a good thing for them," said lead researcher Julie Schweitzer, PhD, professor of psychiatry and director of the UC Davis ADHD Program. "It may be that the hyperactivity we see in ADHD may actually be beneficial at times. Perhaps the movement increases their arousal level, which leads to better attention."

"Maybe teachers shouldn't punish kids for movement and should allow them to fidget as long as it doesn't disturb the rest of the class," said Arthur Hartanto, the study's lead author. "Instead, they should seek activities that are not disruptive that allow their students with ADHD to use movement, because it assists them with thinking."


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January 12, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN